Gaps in River Wye abstraction data raise questions over regulatory oversight during times of drought

6th September 2022

Fish Legal has written to Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the Environment Agency (EA) asking how they control abstraction in practice during a drought after it was revealed via an environmental information request that NRW has no data on the number of farms abstracting water from the River Wye catchment without a licence.

According to disclosed figures, licences granted by NRW allow a total of 306,291,346m3 of surface water to be abstracted from the River Wye catchment in Wales every year.  Of that only 4.6% is attributed to the agricultural sector, with only 6 water abstraction licences issued for spray irrigation in the River Wye catchment in Wales. However, farms can abstraction up to 20m3 every 24 hours without a licence under an exemption available in the Water Resources Act 1991.

In ongoing correspondence with Natural Resource Wales and the Environment Agency, Fish Legal has warned that low flows on the River Wye need to be seen in the context of continuing pollutions of poultry manure and digestate. Currently 60% of the River Wye and its catchment fail environmental targets for phosphates; a key pollutant that causes algal blooms on the river and adversely affects its ecology. 

Justin Neal, Solicitor at Fish Legal said, “We are extremely concerned that Natural Resources Wales does not appear to have any readily available information about the amount of water abstracted from the Wye by farmers without permits – especially at a time of drought.  20m3 is the equivalent of a milk tanker being taken out of the river every single day by just one holding. 

He added:

“We suspect that there are a number of permitted abstractions that may not have yet been properly determined under the Water Abstraction (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2017.   We think that together with a lack of data for unlicensed abstractions this means it is very difficult for the environmental regulator to calculate safe levels of abstraction to avoid damage to habitat and the wildlife it supports.”

The River Wye is a highly protected habitat by law. It is designated as a Special Area of Conservation because it supports species such as the river weed ranunculus, white clawed crayfish, sea lamprey, brook lamprey, twaite shad, Atlantic salmon and allis shad.  Due to the cross-border nature of the River Wye catchment, NRW and EA have to work together to set abstraction licensing policy. 

Justin Neal, Solicitor at Fish Legal said:

“We fail to see how Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency can properly show that abstractions in the Wye catchment are having no adverse effect on the protected site if they don’t have a handle on exactly how much water is being taken from the river, particularly at times of exceptional low flow and high demand for water resources.”

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